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(LONDON) -- Flanked by public health officials, the U.K. Health Secretary painted a bleak picture of the current state of the pandemic in Britain.

"Cases are rising," Sajid Javid, told the nation this week. "And they could go yet as high as 100,000 a day. We're also seeing greater pressure on the NHS (National Health Service) across the U.K. We're now approaching 1,000 hospitalizations per day."

Yet, despite growing calls from doctors' associations and scientists across the U.K. -- Javid resisted calls to introduce mandated prevention measures, such as mask wearing, which were dropped in England in July.

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on that message, stressing the way forward was for as many eligible people as possible to take booster jabs, a rollout that experts warned is lagging behind demand.

Since July, when virtually all social distancing restrictions were relaxed in England, cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased, though at a rate far lower than previous waves of infections when the population did not have access to vaccines.

This week, the U.K. posted a worrying set of figures.

On Tuesday, the government recorded 223 COVID deaths, the highest since March.

The last time the country recorded less than 20,000 daily cases was July -- and this week the latest weekly average stands at over 47,000 daily cases. Deaths, hospitalizations and cases are increasing week over week.

Just under 80% of the population over age 12 have received two doses of coronavirus vaccine, but the evidence suggests that the effectiveness wanes over time, and the U.K. has been slower to vaccinate children than other countries. Rising cases have been linked to the resumption of the school year, where children are not formally required to wear masks and self-isolation rules around COVID-positive schoolchildren have been relaxed.

The booster program, which Israeli officials credit as proving crucial in Israel's success in getting infections under control this summer, has not been as effective as the first wave of vaccinations, he said. An estimated 5 million people have taken their boosters, but around half of all people eligible are yet to take up the call for a third shot of vaccine, according to a report in the Financial Times.

"The vaccine program has really fallen flat," according to Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and the lead investigator of the ZOE Covid Symptom app, which tracks coronavirus infections in the U.K "It's peaked at around 66%, 67% [across the total population] and is hardly moving. And we know now we didn't know then that that's not enough. And I think we're very much back to where we were in March 2020, in some ways."

U.K. government data still shows that the mortality and hospitalization rates among unvaccinated people are still far higher than the vaccinated.

According to reports in the British media, the government does have a 'Plan B' over the winter, which would include reintroducing working from home, mask mandates and potential vaccine passports in nightclubs. "It remains the case we would only look to use that if the pressure on the NHS was looking to become unsustainable," the prime minister's spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News this week.

This week, the British Medical Association, a doctors' trade union, described the government's approach as "willfully negligent," while the NHS Confederation has called for new measures to avoid "stumbling into winter crisis."

Yet Prime Minister Johnson has held out so far against mandating restrictions, and has instead placed greater emphasis on vaccine boosters and the procurement of antiviral drugs. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules than England, with Scotland, for example, mandating mask use and vaccine passports for nightclubs -- policies that are part of Johnson's yet-to-be-implemented 'Plan B.' Health Secretary Javid, while acknowledging there was significant pressure on the National Health Service, said the level was not yet "unsustainable."

Complacency due to the success of the early vaccine rollout, as well as poor public health messaging, has contributed to the recent rise in cases, according to Spector.

"There's been a total absence of public education, no reiteration of [changes in] symptoms [with the delta variant], no ideas about how to stop spreading it in schools," he said. "You know, there's no prevention. There's no concept of prevention."

In mid-July, polling from the Office of National Statistics reported that 63% of adults always or often maintained social distancing, but the same body reported that only 39% of adults were doing so in mid-October.

In terms of infections, the U.K. is now far outpacing other countries in Western and Central Europe. In its weekly epidemiological update, the World Health Organization reported that Europe is the only region where coronavirus infections are rising, by 7% over the past seven days, driven by infection rates in the U.K., Russia and Turkey.

Despite the growing concern, the health service is not yet overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients.

"No, we're not there, we're not there yet," Spector said. "But the point is that everyone scientifically, medically, is seeing these curves going up and inevitably these things get worse as you hit winter, and you hit other respiratory infections."

According to the government's latest seven-day average, 937 patients per day were hospitalized with COVID, with just over 8,000 currently receiving treatment. In January, meanwhile, prior to the vaccine rollout, daily hospitalizations peaked at over 4,000, while the highest number of patients in hospital reached over 39,000.

Instead, doctors and scientists are warning that with infections rising, there is potential for COVID to add to the winter burdens of an already stretched health service that has faced pressures even in pre-pandemic times.

"This time it genuinely does feel different," Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King's Fund, an independent health think tank, told ABC News. "I think that's because there are a lot of familiar pressures that you always have ... you've got the steady ticking up of winter viruses."

Part of the pressure, he said, is the resumption of ordinary care for the massive backlog of patients waiting to be seen in hospitals, that has built up since the pandemic began. 5.7 million people in the U.K., almost 10% of the population, are on waiting lists for planned routine care, and in a worst case scenario this number could rise up to 14 million, Anandaciva said.

"COVID's almost like an accelerant on a fire," he said. "The NHS has always struggled over the winter, and these are pressures that are spread more wildly... It is a problem with COVID, but more fundamentally some of the demand for care coming back after a pause in services and also crucially some of the resourcing issues that have long plagued the NHS. Not having enough staff, not having enough resources."

Facing pressure this winter, the government has announced new funding for the NHS, but it could be years before the health service begins to function at pre-pandemic levels, according to Anandaciva.

Spector was once critical of the government's approach for "underreacting, then overreacting" to the pandemic with successive lockdowns, but now says he now doesn't understand some of the inaction.

"It's complacency to think that this, you know, this isn't going to get worse," he said. "I haven't heard of anyone who says it's going to get better next week. So that's why I can't understand why introducing some simple measures that don't cost the economy anything, only have a political cost can't be implemented."

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration is again playing cleanup after President Joe Biden said the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense in the event of an invasion by mainland China -- despite decades of policy that leaves that an open question.

His comment prompted a stern warning from the People's Republic of China, which considers the self-governing island a breakaway province, especially since Biden has made it twice now in the last couple of months.

That's led to speculation that Biden may be pushing the boundaries of "strategic ambiguity," the longstanding U.S. policy that leaves unanswered whether and how the U.S. would intervene in a conflict across the Taiwan Strait. In recent months, as China has escalated its incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone and ramped up its rhetoric about reunion, some China hawks in Washington have called for an end to the policy.

But the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon all said Friday there was no change in U.S. policy despite Biden's answer during a CNN town hall.

"There has been no shift," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy. There is no change in our policy."

Speaking at NATO headquarters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would continue to provide Taiwan "the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself." But he dismissed questions about a Chinese attack as a "hypothetical."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price went the further, telling reporters, "We have been nothing but clear when it comes to where we stand."

But Biden has been anything but clear. In August, the president told ABC News's George Stephanopoulos that the U.S. had a commitment to act "if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against NATO," Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. While that's true of the first three -- all treaty allies of the United States -- it isn't of Taiwan.

Instead, since a 1979 agreement, the U.S. has recognized the People's Republic of China, including Taiwan, as the sole legal government of China -- what's known as the 'One China' policy. But under that agreement, the U.S. has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan's government, which is defined by a 1979 law that then-senator Biden voted for. The law commits the U.S. "to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability," to oppose any one-sided changes in the status quo and to support a peaceful resolution to their differences, according to the State Department.

But Biden contradicted that again on Thursday, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper that he would have the U.S. military come to Taiwan's defense.

"If China attacked?" Cooper followed up -- and Biden responded, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."

In response, China's Foreign Ministry issued its own warning about its "determination and ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"We urge the U.S. to strictly abide by the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués, be cautious in its words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and refrain from sending any false signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces -- or it will seriously damage to Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," said Wang Wenbin during a briefing Friday.

Some China hawks in the U.S. have been urging the administration to end "strategic ambiguity" and clearly commit to Taiwan's defense, arguing China's increasing pressure on the island is a signal it is preparing to retake it by force and that a clear U.S. commitment would deter that.

But Biden's own pick for U.S. ambassador to China disagreed, just one day prior to the president's comments. During his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, retired career ambassador Nick Burns called for strengthening the U.S. military position in the region and selling weapons to Taiwan to make it a "tough nut to crack."

When asked about ending "strategic ambiguity," however, Burns said, "My own view, and this is also the view ... more importantly of the Biden administration, is that the smartest and effective way for us to help deter aggressive actions by [China] across the Taiwan Strait will be to stay with a policy that's been in place."

It's not the first time an American president has had to walk back comments about Taiwan's defense. In 2001, shortly after he took office, George W. Bush told ABC News's Charlie Gibson he would also come to Taiwan's defense.

"With the full force of the American military?" asked Gibson. Bush responded: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."

Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Bush in an editorial, writing, "In this case, his inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim."

"Words matter, in diplomacy and in law," Biden added.

ABC News's Karson Yiu contributed to this report from Hong Kong and Ben Gittleson from the White House.

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(LONDON) -- A suspected poacher found dead in a South African national park is believed to have been killed by an elephant, park officials said.

Rangers in Kruger National Park discovered the body on Thursday after following tracks in the Stolznek section of the giant game reserve, a spokesperson for the park said in a statement on Twitter.

"Initial investigations suspect that the deceased was killed by an elephant and left behind by his accomplices," the statement said.

The identity of the deceased individual was not released.

The Rangers did not find any animals killed in the immediate area, the spokesperson said.

Park officials took the opportunity to warn that it is "dangerous to hunt illegally" in the park.

"Criminals stand to lose their lives and freedom," the statement said.

Kruger National Park is South Africa's largest wildlife sanctuary, encompassing nearly 5 million acres. The game reserve is also one of the hardest-hit regions in the country for rhino poaching. The park's rhino population has decreased by 60% since 2013. In the first half of 2020, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, with 88 in Kruger National Park.

There are 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in Kruger National Park, according to South African National Parks.

To help combat rhino poaching, in recent months Kruger National Park has deployed more patrols in addition to using dogs and detection technologies to track suspects.

Between July and September, there was a nearly 30% increase in the number of poachers arrested in the park compared with the same period last year, according to South African National Parks.

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(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth was hospitalized Wednesday night for "preliminary investigations," a Buckingham Palace spokesman confirmed to ABC News.

The queen was back at her desk at Windsor Castle by Thursday afternoon and undertaking light duties.

No other details about the queen's condition are currently available.

"Following medical advice to rest for a few days, The Queen attended hospital on Wednesday afternoon for some preliminary investigations," the palace said in a statement. "[She] remains in good spirits."

Queen Elizabeth, 95, hosted a reception for leaders, including Bill Gates and John Kerry, at Windsor Castle on Tuesday.

The next day she was forced to cancel a trip to Northern Island as her medical team advised her to get some rest.

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(GIZA, Egypt) -- Seventy-two years of Egyptian women's rights activism paid off this week as the State Council, an important independent judiciary body in the country, appointed 98 female judges for the first time.

Iman Sherif, one of the appointed judges, described the move as "historic" during the swearing-in ceremony, saying she was over the moon, according to state-run Al-Ahram Newspaper.

"We pledged to live up to our responsibilities. I can't describe my happiness," she added.

"It is very important, not only to see the long resistance came up with this result, but also how much it means to the new generation," Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, told ABC News. "It is a step ahead for the younger generation to believe there can be no restrictions in their dreams."

The recent appointment of 98 judges to Egypt's State Council has considerable implications.

The State Council -- established in 1946 -- is an independent judicial body and one of the pillars of the judicial authority in Egypt. It has its own courts and hierarchy, like the civil and criminal justice systems.

According to the National Council of Women -- which is a state organization -- the very first female judge in Egypt was appointed in 2003 in the Constitutional Court. Later, in 2007, 31 more female judges joined the judiciary in 2008 and 2015.

However, what distinguishes the recent hiring of women judges by the State Council is that this body has mounted the stiffest resistance against women judges joining the judiciary over the last decades.

"That's exactly where the conflict was. The institutions which were supposed to defend and support the citizens' rights were resisting against women's rights within themselves," Abu El Komsan explained. "That is why we celebrated this last move by the State Council."

According to the last official statistics released in 2015 and published by the National Council of Women, women shaped less than half a percent of the total number of judges working in Egypt's judiciary system. While there were only 80 female judges, there were around 12,000 male ones.

"It was and still is a male-dominated field, and even with the new 98 judges the percentage is still less than half a percent," Abu El Komsan said.

The State Council decision of hiring women judges came after a recommendation that the justice ministry made public. The justice ministry said on March 8 that President Fattah Al-Sisi had called on them to appoint female judges in the State Council and Prosecution as he marked the International Women's Day.

To Abu El Komsan, this recommendation was a result of years of women's rights activism and civil demands for a change, rather than a gesture.

However, not all women's rights activists share the same stance.

"Al-Sisi needs to just show the world that Egypt does not have any problem with women. But they really do," Reda Eldanbouki, a lawyer and the executive director of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, told ABC News.

"We have had great women judges who did want to join the State Council, but their applications were rejected because [they were] not necessarily aligned with the system. It did not matter how much they pursued their cases through legal paths, it still did not work," Eldanbouki said.

"Actually, gender doesn't matter. Male or female, you need to obey the system," he added.

Eldanbouki and Abu El Komsan believe these newly appointed judges were not chosen from the graduates of the law schools, but rather the Council "promoted" or simply "relocated" the women judges who were already working at different positions or departments of the judiciary.

"They [the State Council] still have not opened the doors to the female graduates of the law schools. Most of them work as lawyers," Abu El Komsan said. "We still have to push for breaking the glass ceiling."

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(NEW YORK) — Ivory poaching has led to a "rapid evolution" of tuskless African elephants, as elephants without tusks were far more likely to survive during the height of the ivory trade, according to new research.

Much of the distress on the species occurred during the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, when the ivory poaching in the region was at its most intense, according to a new study published Thursday in Science. During the conflict, armed forces on both sides relied heavily on the ivory trade to finance the war efforts, according to the researchers.

The elephant population in the region declined more than 90% due to the war, and the mass hunting of the mammals for their tusks resulted in a phenotype of the species that had a better chance of survival -- specifically, female elephants.

During the conflict, a tuskless female would have five times the chances of survival than a female with a tusk, Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, told ABC News.

"So it actually seems to be a very strong selection over a very short period of time," he said.

The explanation for the trait evolving in female elephants and not males has to do with the genetics of tooth development, according to the study. Specifically, an X chromosome male-lethal syndrome that diminishes the growth of lateral incisors,

Campbell-Staton began hearing about the rise of "tusklessness" elephants years ago when he was in graduate school, but the research to find an explanation for the phenomenon had not yet occurred, he said.

"In regions where there's intensive poaching, there seem to be more animals without tusks," he said. "But we had no idea what was going on, why it happened ... the degree with which it happened."

The scientists investigated the impacts of ivory hunting on the evolution of African elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, during and after the civil war.

The findings shed new light on just how powerful an effect human exploitation can have on wildlife populations, the researchers said.

"The selective killing of species – whether for food, safety, or profit – has only become more common and intense as human populations and technology have grown," the authors wrote. "So much so, it's suggested that wildlife exploitation by humans has become a powerful selective driver in the evolution of targeted species."

However, if the ivory trade were to continue to decline and elephant populations were to rebound, there is a chance that the evolution of tuskless elephants could be reversed, Campbell-Staton said, adding that researchers already see this to be the case.

In Gorongosa National Park, which he described as a "success story" due to the climbing population, the children of female elephants that survived the war are inheriting the trait, but only by about 50%, Campbell-Staton said.

While the notion that rapid evolution is not new, the findings were surprising to Campbell-Staton due to the long life spans of African elephants, which can live up to 70 years, and the long gestation periods, which are typically about two years.

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Abdallah M. Elbarawy

(CAIRO) —A man attempting to demolish one of four ancient sphinxes adorning the Tahrir square in Cairo was caught by security personnel, an eyewitness reports.

"I and my friends were in Tahrir when we saw someone climbing up to the head of one of the sphinxes. He was wielding a big hammer and shouting 'Allahu Akbar' before starting to hit it," Abdallah Elbarawy, a 22-year-old law student at Cairo University, told ABC News.

"He was then captured by security guards, who took him away," Elbarawy said.

Local media said the man, who was not identified, was being questioned.

An antiquities ministry source told ABC News that no damage was sustained to any of the sphinxes.

Last year, Egypt relocated the four ram-headed sphinxes to Tahrir in the heart of Cairo from the southern city of Luxor -- a move criticized at the time by many archaeologists, who feared the artifacts could be damaged because of their exposure to air pollution and heat in the congested square.

The sphinxes were previously located in a courtyard behind the first pylon of the famed Karnak temple in Luxor.

After being transferred to Tahrir, the sphinxes were kept in wooden crates before being unveiled last April, shortly before Egypt held a procession for 22 royal mummies from the iconic square. They lie beneath a 90-tonne obelisk that dates back to the era of famous New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II.

Egypt said it will soon re-open the Grand Avenue of Sphinxes, a 3,000-year-old road that connects Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple, to the public after completing excavation and restoration works in the ancient pathway.

The avenue is flanked by hundreds of ram-headed sphinxes, similar to the ones that were moved to Tahrir.

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(NEW YORK) — Eight Nigerians have been charged in the U.S. with running widespread internet scams for at least a decade from their base of operation in Cape Town, South Africa, federal prosecutors in New Jersey announced Wednesday.

The suspects, who were arrested in Cape Town and are awaiting extradition, have suspected ties to a transnational organized crime syndicate originating in Nigeria known as Black Axe.

From 2011 through 2021 the defendants allegedly ran schemes that involved their telling victims in the United States false narratives about traveling to South Africa for work and needing money after a series of unfortunate and unforeseen events, according to the indictment.

Other Americans fell victim to the defendants' romance scams, believing they were in romantic relationships with someone using an alias and, when requested, the victims sent money and items of value to South Africa, the indictment said.

"The Co-conspirators often used aliases not only of the purported love interest of a victim, but also of other people involved in that person's life, including a purported child, a business partner, or a friend, to bolster the perceived legitimacy of the stories portrayed, as a part of the Romance Scam or Advance Fee Scheme and to further induce the victims to send money on behalf of the purported love interest," the indictment said.

Federal prosecutors quoted messages the defendants allegedly sent to victims, in one instance seeking a loan to fix a crane for a construction project:

"Honey, i don't know how you will take this, i hate doing it but i have no other option, with profound sense of sadness and disgrace i am begging you to please loan me the balance, if possible a little bit more for upkeeping, i promise i will reimburse you once they come for inspection and give me the part-payment and that cannot be more than sometime next week."

Sometimes victims were allegedly convinced to open financial accounts in the United States that the conspirators would then be permitted to use themselves to launder money.

Internet-based scams like the ones described in the indictment cost victims $600 million in 2020, according to the FBI.

"If you continue to be able to have a scheme that works you're going to keep going back to it," said George Crouch, special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Newark Field Office.

He said the schemes allegedly perpetrated by the Nigerians charged this week were particularly insidious because they played on people's emotions.

"Widowers, widows, divorcees, they really target those folks in a vulnerable state, pulling at their heart strings, all with the intent of separating them from their money," Crouch told ABC News in a phone interview.

"Americans are too often victimized by criminal organizations located abroad who use the internet to deceive those victims, defraud them of money, and, many times, persuade the victims to wittingly or unwittingly assist in perpetuating the fraudulent schemes," acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig said. "The public should be on guard against schemes like these."

The defendants are charged with wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.

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(AL-TANF, Syria) -- There were no U.S. military injuries or deaths resulting from a coordinated attack Wednesday on a small remote U.S. military base at al Tanf, Syria, according to two U.S. officials.

The attack "at a minimum" involved drones and "indirect fire," the military term for mortar or rocket fire, according to a U.S. official.

Iraqi security sources said the attack involved five booby-trapped drones and was carried out from inside Syria.

There is no indication yet as to who may have been responsible for the attack, but similar drone attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq have been a tactic used by Iranian-backed militias, most notably Kataib Hezbollah.

Drone attacks attributed to those militias have at times resulted in American retaliatory airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting their facilities.

The remote base at al Tanf is located along a key highway in southern Syria on the border with Jordan and is surrounded by a 35-mile buffer zone to prevent potential conflicts with Russian and Syrian government troops located nearby.

The small outpost is the only American military base in Syria not located in Syrian Kurdish-held areas in eastern Syria where most of the 1,000 American troops in Syria are based.

U.S. troops remain in Syria as part of an ongoing effort to prevent ISIS from regaining territory inside that country.

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(NEW YORK) -- Survivors of a previous kidnapping by the notorious Haitian gang 400 Mawozo have revealed details about what life was like as a hostage, with the group currently demanding a $17 million ransom to set free 16 Americans and one Canadian they have captive.

The group of missionaries affiliated with Christian Aid Ministries were kidnapped at a checkpoint in the capital of Port-au-Prince on Saturday, officials told ABC News, and the FBI, State Department and other U.S. agencies have sent a team to the country to secure their safe release. A senior Haitian police official involved in the efforts to free the Americans told ABC News that the kidnappers have demanded a ransom of $1 million per person.

Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio, revealed more details about the hostages on Tuesday, saying that the adults held captive were between the ages of 18 and 48, while there were also five children, the youngest of whom is 8 months old.

In Haiti, a majority Catholic country, 400 Mawozo gang members are known for their brutal tactics and targeting of clerical groups. Gédéon Jean, the director of Haiti's Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, told the Washington Post that the gang was responsible for the most abductions.

Haiti has the highest kidnapping rate per capita in the world, and 400 Mawozo members are believed to have been responsible for kidnapping ten French missionaries in April of this year, who were released after 20 days. In interviews with ABC News, two survivors recounted their experience and offered their prayers for the current hostages.

Father Jean Millien, who was among the group of missionaries and is still based in Haiti, told ABC News that he was hopeful the hostages would be set free.

"The message I have for them is not to be impatient," he said. "I do think that one day all of them will be free."

And another of the survivors from the April kidnapping, Sister Agnes Bordeau, 81, of the Sisters of Providence, who has since returned to France, shared details with ABC News about what life is like under hostage conditions. They were kidnapped after being given repeated warnings from the French Embassy in Haiti about the dangers of operating in the country.

After they were kidnapped by the armed gunmen, Bordeau said that the group changed locations three times; their captors able to evade the authorities in a country that is roughly the same size as the state of Maryland.

"We were sleeping on cardboard outdoors in the middle of the forest," Bordeau told ABC News. "Five days outdoors without moving. Of course, if we needed to go to the restrooms we had to ask permission and we were followed by an armed guard. [When we were moved inside] we were afraid for our lives as the room was very dirty and it was very hot. Only one person could stand or sit."

In the forest they experienced perhaps the most terrifying event of their ordeal -- when they suspected their captors were digging makeshift graves.

"At some point, I could hear noises of people digging and I asked a priest what it was about and he told me very peacefully that the ang was preparing for us a pauper's grave," she said. "They tied our hands, one of the gang members [ripped] a priest's robe to make strips to blindfold us altogether, but it did not last for a very long time."

Despite the harrowing ordeal, during which they were only fed one meal a day, Bordeau said, the missionaries eventually engaged in dialogue with their captors, even though all of their possessions -- with the exception of their personal bibles, were stolen.

They survived, she said, through their collective faith.

"We supported each other, we took care of each other, we paid attention to our own words as well," she said. "We were never discouraged and we had very deep moments of prayers... And personally I can say I could really feel the presence of God in the middle of us."

After 20 days of captivity, Bordeau said they were abruptly released in the middle of the night. It is unknown whether or not a ransom was paid.

"When we were released, the big chief of the gang asked us to pray for them," she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed that the U.S. will do all it can to secure the release of the hostages.

"Gangs dominate many parts of Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti, the national police can't even operate in many of these areas," Blinken said, noting the practical difficulties of life on the ground.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan and Marcus Moore contributed to this report

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(NEW YORK) -- Reports that China may have tested a new hypersonic weapon have grabbed the world's attention and divided national security experts about its strategic significance and whether the U.S. was falling behind in a new arms race.

But it also raised basic questions about the new technology, what it all means, and what it is that China may have tested.

"The U.S. does not currently have the ability to even track this weapon, much less defeat it," said Steve Ganyard, a retired Marine colonel and ABC News contributor.

On Monday, China's foreign ministry denied a Financial Times report that it had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile and instead claimed that it had conducted a "routine test" of a reusable space vehicle.

The newspaper cited five American officials who said China had launched a long-range rocket that deployed a hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the earth in a low orbit before returning to a target area in China, missing it by two dozen miles. ABC News has not independently confirmed the report.

The development raised the possibility of a new arms race for a concept and technology that few people have even heard of.

The idea is that gliders fitted atop ballistic missiles use the rocket's force to achieve hypersonic speeds, more than five times the speed of sound, as they glide and maneuver through the atmosphere for longer distances than ballistic missiles.

It is believed that because the gliders travel at lower altitudes than a warhead launched from an ICBM, current early warning systems would have a hard time tracking them as they head toward their targets.

They are also hard to track because the glide vehicles are maneuverable in the atmosphere, unlike ballistic warheads that follow a fixed trajectory, meaning they could weave their way around ground-based interceptor missile systems.

The U.S. has been developing its own hypersonic weapons programs, but both Russia and China have claimed technological advances that they say have made their programs already operational.

But China's test launch would be a significant step forward because a glider was placed into a low earth orbit and then reentered the atmosphere as it headed towards a target at hypersonic speed.

"What China tested was an orbital bombardment system," said Jeffrey Lewis, with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "The glider entered orbit and had to be brought back down with a de-orbit burn. It's not clear how much gliding it actually did."

Either way, the possibility of a new Chinese glider capability from space is raising concerns, particularly if it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and able to evade current missile defense systems.

"It will give the Chinese the ability to conduct a nuclear strike anywhere in the world without warning," said Ganyard.

"They now have a weapon that we don't have, we can't defend against, we can't even see. So, we are at a strategic disadvantage," he said. "And it is probably the first time since the end of World War Two, maybe 1945-46, that the U.S. has been at a strategic disadvantage to any other country. We are behind, and the Chinese have the edge."

Taylor Fravel, the Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledges that the new Chinese capability "does expose the limits of the U.S. missile defense system" designed to counter ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran," but he does not see a new Chinese glide vehicle as destabilizing.

"Given the continued large gap in warhead stockpiles, whereby China possess only a fraction of those of the U.S. this particular test should not upset the U.S.-China nuclear balance or be destabilizing in that way," he told ABC News.

"However, it underscores China’s determination to strengthen its deterrent, especially as amid the steep decline in U.S.-China relations and long-standing concerns about missile defense," he added.

A nuclear military power since the 1960s, China is believed to maintain a small stockpile of at least 250 nuclear warheads, as well as a modest launch capability housed in dozens of missile silos.

Meanwhile, the United States has declared a stockpile of 3,750 warheads capable of being deployed by hundreds of land-based and sea-launched missiles and a strategic bomber fleet.

But recent open-sourced satellite images indicate that China is constructing more than 200 additional missile silos, an indication that it may be expanding its nuclear weapons capability.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, declined to confirm the details of the Financial Times report but said “It almost seems like we can’t go through a month without some new revelation coming about China.”

“I am not surprised at reports like this. I won’t be surprised when another report comes next month,” he said, adding, the “breathtaking expansion of strategic and nuclear capabilities” means “China can now execute any possible nuclear employment strategy."

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired a possible submarine-launched ballistic missile off the East Coast Tuesday morning, according to the neighboring countries South Korea and Japan, marking the eighth missile test-fire this year alone.

"Our military detected a missile launch eastward from a site in the vicinity of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province around 10:17 a.m.," South Korea's Joint Chief of Staff, General Won In-choul, told reporters.

The unidentified ballistic missile allegedly launched from a submarine and flew 370 miles at an altitude of 37 miles, according to South Korea's military.

"It is likely a new mini-SLBM that North Korea showcased last week at an arms exhibition," Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told ABC News.

Another analyst told ABC News that Kim Jong Un is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles in order to prepare a more survivable nuclear deterrent able to blackmail his neighbors and the United States.

"North Korea cannot politically afford appearing to fall behind in a regional arms race with its southern neighbor," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told ABC News.

Easley said that although the North Korean missile launch timing is largely driven by a technical schedule for when tests are ready and useful, there's also a political factor.

"Pyongyang is celebrating the ruling party's founding and looking to boost national morale after harsh pandemic lockdowns. And the Kim regime likely wants to one-up South Korean missile tests, at least in Pyongyang's propaganda," Easley said.

The same day, the intelligence chiefs of South Korea, the United States and Japan held a closed-door trilateral meeting in Seoul to discuss the pending issues in the Korean peninsula, such as the security situation, according to South Korea's National Intelligence.

Meanwhile in Washington, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk discussed North Korea's missile launch over the phone with the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim. Noh happened to be in Washington for the meeting to discuss ways to bring the North back to the negotiating table the day before.

North Korea's missile launch comes only two weeks after Pyongyang made a conditional peace offer to Seoul on reconnecting the military hotline. For Seoul, it was a symbolic gesture that their relations could see an improvement.

As Pyongyang raised international concern by firing yet another missile just 19 days after the latest missile test, South Korea's presidential office held a presidential National Security Council right after the missile launch.

"The council members expressed deep regret that North Korea's launch occurred while active consultations are underway with related countries like the United States to advance the Korean Peninsula peace process," South Korea's Unification Ministry said in an official statement.

North Korea's last test-fire of an SLBM was in October 2019.

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(NEW YORK) -- A Haitian gang has been blamed for kidnapping a group at a Haitian airport that included 17 missionaries, five of them children, according to officials.

Nineteen people were abducted by a gang at a checkpoint in Haiti during an airport run on Saturday, a source at the U.S. embassy told ABC News. The kidnapping occurred at the intersection of "Carrefour Boen" and "La Tremblay 17," a source at the Haitian presidential office told ABC News.

Included in the group are 17 missionaries -- 16 Americans and one Canadian -- and two Haitian citizens, according to the U.S. Embassy. Two French priests were also kidnapped in a separate attack at the same location earlier in the day, the source said.

The Haitian government suspects the gang known as 400 Mawozo to be responsible for the abductions, the source said.

It is unclear where the victims were taken.

The FBI made contact with the 400 Mawozoa on Monday, the agency told ABC News.

A team of U.S. authorities, including State Department officials, was "dispatched to Haiti to work closely with Haitian authorities on this matter," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.

"This is something that we have treated as ... with the utmost priority since Saturday," he said.

Price added that the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has been in "constant contact" with Haitian national police, the missionary group Christian Aid Ministries and the victims' families.

The Ohio-based ministry Christian Aid Ministries confirmed in a statement that a group of 17 people were "abducted" while on a trip to an orphanage on Saturday. They added in a statement Monday that, "civil authorities in Haiti and the United States are aware of what has happened and are offering assistance."

"We greatly appreciate the prayers of believers around the world, including our many Amish and Mennonite supporters. The Bible says, 'The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,' (James 5:16)," the ministry said in a statement Monday.

Five men, seven women and five children are among those abducted, according to the ministry.

Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press that the 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group while they were in Ganthier, about 17 miles east of Port Au Prince.

The gang has also been blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year, according to The Associated Press. The country is experiencing a rise in gang-related kidnappings, many demanding ransom, that quelled after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 14 that killed more than 2,200 people.

The U.S. State Department told ABC News in a statement that it is "in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and interagency partners."

"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the statement read.

The FBI is expected to assist in negotiations, ABC News has learned.

Additional information on the kidnapping was not immediately available.

ABC News' Aicha el Hammar and Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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(NEW YORK) -- Since the beginning of October, Beijing has sent more than 150 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone in an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese government. In recent days, the People’s Liberation Army also mounted large amphibious landing drills on the mainland side of the Taiwan Straits -- an unambiguous show of force and a sign of escalating tensions in the region.

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng even warned the Taiwanese legislature earlier this month that Beijing might be able to launch a "full-scale" invasion of the island by 2025.

Tensions across the Taiwan Straits are now at the highest level in years and unforeseen error from either sides risks dragging the United States into a potential conflict with China.

The spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, called the military exercises a "just" move aimed at "separatist activities" on the island and what it says is “collusion with foreign forces” by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) -- a not-so-veiled allusion to U.S. support for Taiwan.

At the heart of the matter is Beijing's view that Taiwan is a breakaway province of 23 million people that will eventually have to "reunified" with the rest of China. Beijing leaders continue to press for what they call "peaceful reunification" but have not ruled out the use of military force. Xi Jinping has ramped up the pressure on Taiwan, making reunification a stated goal of the “China Dream” of “national rejuvenation.”

Since coming back into power in 2016, the DPP government has increasingly leaned into the island’s separate self-rule status, and has just fallen short of declaring independence, which Beijing views as a bright red line.

The ‘Taiwan Question’

Beijing sees the Taiwan Question as a relic of national shame that originated when the island was taken from the imperial Qing Dynasty by Japan as a colony in 1895.

At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) Government of the Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan, which they reclaimed at the end of WWII. Meanwhile the prevailing Communist Party of China declared the mainland the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides eyeing the eventually "reunification" of China. The ROC and the PRC both continue to claim legitimate sovereignty over China with Beijing frequently threatening to liberate the island.

The United States maintained official diplomatic relations with Taipei until 1979 when it switched its recognition to Beijing. The switch was made easier at the time when Taiwan wasn’t the democracy it is today but an authoritarian regime.

In switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, the U.S. and China agreed to abide by the "One China" Policy. For the U.S. it was an acknowledgement that the “Chinese on either sides of Taiwan Straits maintain there is but one China” but the status of Taiwan is undetermined and is expected to be resolved peacefully. For Beijing it means that Taiwan belongs to Beijing’s "One China." This different interpretations of the policy have been at the foundation of the U.S.-China relationship.

In order to give assurances to Taiwan, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for the U.S. to maintain unofficial, de facto relations with Taipei and allows the U.S. to provide Taiwan arms for self-defense. The act did not guarantee, however, that the U.S. would intervene if Beijing attacks or invades the island but sets up a "strategic ambiguity" in hopes of dissuading Beijing from attacking and Taipei from unilaterally declaring independence.

Beijing soon began offering Taipei the option of a “peaceful reunification.” As Hong Kong prepared to be handed back over from the British to the Chinese in 1997, Beijing proposed using the "One Country, Two Systems" principle devised for Hong Kong as model to bring Taiwan back into the fold.

Isolating the Tsai Ing-wen government

Since coming into to power in 2016, Tsai has tiptoed the acceptable bounds of the cross-strait relationship but has never publicly embraced independence nor the 1992 Consensus, the latter angering Beijing.

Almost immediately Beijing cut off all official lines of communication with Tsai’s DPP government, painting the DPP as secessionists. Beijing suspended all Chinese tour groups to the island cutting, off a reliable source of revenue on the island. Beijing then began poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in hopes of completely isolating the government. During Tsai’s first term as president she lost seven diplomatic allies to Beijing.

The squeeze almost worked. A year out from the 2020 election, Tsai was on shaky ground for re-election but then 2019 Hong Kong protests erupted. Playing into the fear of increased Beijing encroachment and the broken promises of “Once Country, Two Systems “ gave Tsai the momentum to be reelected in a landslide in early 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prospect of “One Country, Two Systems” had become so toxic in Taiwan after the Hong Kong protests that both the KMT and the DPP publicly rejected it as a possibility for Taiwan.

'Gray-zone' warfare amid cratering US-China ties

Emerging from the pandemic with a renewed confidence, Beijing began to refocus its pressure campaign on Taiwan just as its relationship with Washington began to crater.

Beijing soon began to employ what Taiwan called low-level “gray-zone warfare” to exhaust the Taiwanese military and people. In 2020, Chinese warplanes made 380 incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone making Taipei scramble their own jets to respond every single time. The incursions only increased this year.

In response, the U.S. has engaged with Taiwan more openly. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed all restrictions between diplomatic contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials in the finals days of the Trump Administration, infuriating Beijing. The Biden Administration has taken it further by encouraging working ties with Taiwanese officials, even invited the Taiwanese envoy to President Biden's inauguration.

At the same time, Beijing has been nurturing a rise in nationalistic sentiment across the country, fueled in part by their success in suppressing COVID-19 and the growing view that Western powers especially the U.S. is in a state of decline exemplified by its failure to control the pandemic.

The view was further exasperated by Chinese state media playing up the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times painted the U.S as unreliable, asking whether Afghanistan was “some kind of omen for Taiwan’s future fate?”

Just as Americans have an increasing unfavorable view of China, the Chinese public has had an increasingly antagonistic view of Americans. The Eurasia Group Foundation found that less than 35% of Chinese people have a positive opinion about the U.S. compared to 57% just two years earlier.

Chinese propaganda and pop culture have been cashing in and normalizing a U.S.-China conflict. The Chinese blockbuster "The Battle at Lake Changjin," financed by the government’s propaganda department tells of a PLA victory over U.S. troops during the Korean War. Since Oct. 1st it has grossed over $633 million at the Chinese box office.

Now armed with the most well-equipped military China has ever possessed including the world’s largest navy by number of ships, Xi has been preparing Chinese officials and the military for challenging days ahead.

“We must persist in strengthening the overall planning of war and make preparations for military struggle,” he told the Politburo over the summer and in September told young Communist Party officials, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing. It’s unrealistic to always expect easy days and not want to struggle.”

What’s next?

With China facing an unprecedented domestic power crunch, a major real estate developer threatening the economy with an impending default, a major Communist Party leadership meeting in November and the task of holding the Winter Olympics in a few months’ time, Beijing may have some more pressing issues than entering a conflict over Taiwan.

After the unprecedented defense zone jet intrusions, it appears that both Beijing and Taipei have attempted to temporarily dial the temperature down a notch in separate speeches celebrating a shared anniversary across the Taiwan Strait last weekend.

While Xi reiterate his desire for "reunification" he stressed that “peaceful means best serves the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including compatriots in Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s Tsai called for dialogue with Beijing on "the basis of parity."

This comes as Beijing and Washington have attempted to stabilize their relationship in recent weeks with a series of meetings.

Even after reports of a small presence of U.S. Marines deployed to train Taiwanese forces on the island -- an act which Beijing could see as a violation of their red line -- the Foreign Ministry spokesperson chose to highlight the incremental process made during a meeting between Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi which is paving the way for Biden-Xi virtual summit before the end of the year.

When asked about the rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, President Biden told the press that he raised the issue with Xi on a call.

"I've spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree ... we'll abide by the Taiwan agreement," he said. "We made it clear that I don't think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement."

After the comments the Taiwan Foreign Ministry was assured by the U.S. that the American commitment to Taiwan was "rock solid."

Beijing has continued to warn the U.S. against playing the "Taiwan Card."

How U.S.-China relations continue to play out in the coming months and years will ultimately determine Taiwan’s future.

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(WASHINGTON) -- "I'm in danger," the daughter cried to her father from thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

"We cannot go outside with friends. Before, we were going outside to restaurants, shopping, but now we are like prisoners in our own home," she said, her voice full of fear, saying Taliban fighters might find her.

"Mina" (ABC News has changed her name for her protection and that of others), a university-educated and unmarried Afghan woman, separated from her family in the U.S., was pleading for help on a call with advocates trying to get her out.

With her father having aided the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and her immediate family living in New Jersey, Mina is in hiding, saying she fears her ties to the U.S. make her a target.

On a recording of a call ABC News listened to, her voice was breaking.

"I'm not mentally good nowadays because this situation is a burden on me," she said, adding that she did not know which relative she might find shelter with next.

"She is under pressure," her father said, helping translate for a daughter he said is normally proficient in English. "Now in this status situation, she forgot her language. She forgot her information. She forgot her mind."

Mina's mother says she isn't used to relying on medication to fall asleep, but after calls like this one, she says she needs it to escape the dark reality facing her only daughter -- blaming herself for Mina being left behind.

Mina's parents and two brothers were able to come to the U.S. in 2016 on her father's Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granted to those who helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Her oldest brother, who also worked with the U.S., immigrated in 2018 under the same program. But Mina, now 34, aged out to qualify as a dependent.

While her father has petitioned since 2018 to bring her to the U.S. via a Petition for Alien Relative, a route that permanent, lawful residents can use to bring immediate relatives to the U.S., the chaotic evacuation of American troops from the country at the end of August ignited a desperate search for options.

"It's life or death," Elizabeth Dembrowsky, the attorney who's handling Mina's case from New York, told ABC News. "Her father's worked and aided the United States -- because of their interests -- and because of that aid, he's put his daughter at risk."

Mina's father said he sometimes regrets not lying about her age on the SIV application, believing, he said, that if he hadn't abided by the rules of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, his daughter might already be with them.

He says people in Afghanistan know her immediate family lives in the U.S. and mockingly call her "'the Americans' daughter.'"

'Please help my daughter'

Dembrowsky founded Good Counsel Services, a nonprofit that offers legal advice to other nonprofit organizations, in 2016. Volunteering at an immigration office while studying at Brooklyn Law School, she met a man who had helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan who then started recommending her legal services to his friends. One of them was Mina's father who first contacted her in 2018.

"'Please help my daughter'" were the only words in an email Mina's father sent her last month.

Dembrowsky is actively working on filing humanitarian parole applications in 13 similar cases, a legal route she took with Mina's case as U.S. troops left the country, taking with them the hopes of many Afghans desperate to escape.

Granted by USCIS on a "case-by-case basis," humanitarian parole allows certain individuals to enter and reside in the U.S. without a visa. Each application comes with a $575 fee and extensive paperwork, including an "Affidavit of Support" that serves as proof a sponsor has agreed to provide financial support to the person who is known as the parolee. It's a process Dembrowsky said has bipartisan backing.

"You can wring your hands and scream and blame the former or current president or the entire decision to go into Afghanistan, but it's not helpful because the crisis is ongoing. We have people today that need to be taken out of there, and we as Americans can help by volunteering to serve as sponsors," Dembrowsky said.

Once a sponsor is secured, it can take weeks to months to process applications. There's currently a backlog of roughly 11,000, according to the National Immigration Forum. That does not include the majority of SIV holders -- tens of thousands of people -- who were also left behind in the abrupt evacuation. Dembrowsky is calling on the federal government to do more to expedite applications from allies and their families she says the U.S. "abandoned."

To expedite a parole application, a person can directly write or call immigration services, but advocates say an often more effective route is having a member of Congress contact them about a specific application on their behalf. Dembrowsky said she contacted the offices of Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Sept. 2, and of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. on Sept. 23.

"My office is working closely with the Department of State, USCIS, and family members in New Jersey to bring this young woman safely to the United States. We are making progress on her case and are confident that she will be able to join her family in New Jersey," Pallone told ABC News in a statement on Thursday afternoon.

Dembrowsky learned late Wednesday that Mina's Petition for Alien Relative application, filed in 2018 to prove she was related to her family, was "processed," but they haven't been contacted about next steps. Mina's humanitarian parole application still hangs in limbo, as they do for thousands of Afghan nationals.

The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, has reported more than half a million Afghans have been internally displaced since January due to Taliban advances, 80% of whom are women and children.

'Matter of political will'

Even if Mina's parole application is conditionally approved, there's still a major caveat.

With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed, she must make the dangerous and uncertain trek to an embassy or consulate in another country for additional processing. That journey has been made nearly impossible since the former Afghan government collapsed and the U.S. withdrew -- with few flights out of the country and uncertainty over how to get a seat, or risky travel over land through Taliban checkpoints.

"It's extremely difficult and that's why, while this humanitarian parole application process can offer some hope, it's not an easy solution," Danilo Zak, a senior policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum, told ABC News. "In general, it's going to be very difficult for people to escape on their own now."

Mina's devoted father said in the call reviewed by ABC News that he would personally find a way to get her across the border.

He just needs the paperwork.

"If the government makes excuse that there is no embassy of America in Kabul ... if they issue the visa for her, paper-wise, and send by email, I can go to third country and evacuate her from Afghanistan and process her documentation and visa and fingerprint and interview with her -- and then I will bring her with me," he said.

Dembrowsky said her team is also working with veterans groups to help facilitate safe passage if and when Mina is deemed eligible and called for processing at an embassy or consulate.

Despite what may seem like insurmountable obstacles, Zak said granting humanitarian parole is the most effective option right now for those left behind because the process was designed for quick, emergency evacuations. The U.S. has repeatedly granted parole to allies, under presidents of both parties, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, including 130,000 parolees after the Vietnam War.

"We can't discriminate against these parolees for the nature of the emergency evacuation -- which is really what we're doing here," Zak said, arguing the need for an Afghan Adjustment Act to establish a pathway for refugees and parolees to permanent residency.

Further congressional action, such as expediting immigration processes and mandating the U.S. work with allies to create safe evacuation routes, he said, is all "a matter of political will."

"That's what we saw before the evacuation, where suddenly we actually were able to ramp up SIV processes. The same thing is true now," he said. "It's just a matter of making this a top priority to evacuate those who remain at risk in Afghanistan."

'What would I do?'

For now, Mina waits -- in hiding.

And volunteers at Good Counsel Services continue lobbying lawmakers -- and everyday Americans -- on cases like hers.

When Congress passed its continuing resolution last month to prevent a government shutdown, it included a provision of benefits for Afghan parolees they otherwise wouldn't be able to access without a visa, such as housing, childcare and federal financial support, critical for volunteer agencies and for recruiting all-important sponsors.

"The result is that resettlement agencies can play a much, much larger role for many of those who are coming in under parole, and that means that there's less of responsibility for the sponsor, and certainly no responsibility to house them," Zak said.

Dembrowsky, for her part, said she's asked daily to take on more applications for people still desperate to get out, but lamented she won't commit to them without securing financial sponsors first.

"I just don't want to throw this life preserver and not be able to hold on to the other end of it," she said.

One person who answered her call is Ford Seeman, a social impact entrepreneur in New York, who credited being adopted at birth for giving him a unique understanding of how one's future can be affected by circumstance. He's donated $10,000 to Good Counsel Services for the cause, as well as agreed to gather the necessary documents and sign on to sponsor a potential parolee.

"I'm honored and, frankly, feel somewhat obligated to share with those facing overwhelming obstacles," he told ABC News in an email. "We are all one people and need to look out for each other."

While thousands of Afghans like Mina face an uncertain fate, Dembrowsky said the U.S. is facing a moment of moral reckoning.

"I wasn't alive during the Holocaust. I wasn't alive during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. But we, as humans, ask ourselves these questions, 'What would I do in that circumstance?'" Dembrowsky said. "Today in Afghanistan, there is something we can do, and if we refuse to do something -- and if anything were to happen to her -- it will be on our collective hands."

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